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Too flashy. Too cold. Too young. Critics said Esa-Pekka Salonen would be a bad fit. But he and the L.A. Phil grew together. It's been 24 years since they met. His final season should be bittersweet.

September 28, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

IMMEDIATELY after conducting the last Los Angeles Philharmonic concert of the 2007-08 season in June, music director Esa-Pekka Salonen took off for Stockholm, where the Swedish Radio Orchestra celebrated his 50th birthday with an affectionately screwball gala. Next he visited his country home in his native Finland, where he composes and recharges. In August, he went to the Finnish capital to conduct at the Helsinki Festival, which he once headed, and then back to Stockholm to do the same at the Baltic Sea Festival, which he started six years ago to increase awareness of environmental issues through music. That was followed by his Vienna Philharmonic debut at the Salzburg Festival in Austria.

A major figure in Scandinavia, a conductor and composer in demand throughout the world who keeps places in London, Finland and Brentwood, Salonen greeted me at a casual cafe on San Vicente Boulevard early this month by saying that it was good to be home. Dressed in T-shirt, cargo shorts, sandals and sunglasses, he was eager to sit outside and soak up some sun.

"From the point of view of language," he said in his accented but sophisticated English, "Finland is home. But in every other way, L.A. is. Two of my kids were born here, and I have to say we have had a very good life here."

But come April, Salonen will relinquish one of his L.A. residences. He's staying in Brentwood, where he lives with his English-born wife and three children, but he is giving up his artistic home at Walt Disney Concert Hall. His 17th season as Philharmonic music director, which begins Thursday, will be his last. For all the anticipation over the young Venezuelan superstar Gustavo Dudamel, who will be taking over a year from now, this will be a bittersweet season at the symphony.

Salonen has altered Los Angeles. Los Angeles has altered him. But the equation is complex. "It is very hard to say what exactly has occurred," he said after a pause, "because the goal posts all have changed. I have changed. The orchestra has changed. The world has changed. And all of this has happened on several levels."

There can be little doubt that Salonen, who has made the Philharmonic an international model for the modern symphony orchestra, has grown artistically, as well as in prominence, in ways no one would have predicted. Not least himself. But in fact, one man did predict that Salonen was fated for L.A.

In 1983, an unknown, boyish-looking 25-year-old composer with long hair (who took up conducting because somebody had to perform his and his friends' music) was called to London at the last minute to replace an indisposed Michael Tilson Thomas in Mahler's Third Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Salonen learned the score practically overnight and proved a sensation.

Ernest Fleischmann, then executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was there and immediately signed him to make his U.S. debut at the Music Center the following year.

"More or less the first thing he said was, 'You know, I have a feeling that you would be a very good match with this orchestra in L.A. Shall we pursue that?' " Salonen recalled. "And I said, 'What do you mean exactly?' "

Initial intrigue

Carlo Maria Giulini, the orchestra's beloved Italian music director, was retiring, and Fleischmann told Salonen that he was engaged in a music director search.

"I thought, 'This is the most ridiculous thing I've heard in my life,' " Salonen continued. " 'What does he smoke? You know he's from California, so he must be on something.' "

But Salonen was intrigued. He had never been to America. His first concert with the Philharmonic was in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Nov. 29, 1984. By then, Andre Previn was music director-designate.

"I had no idea what to expect," Salonen said. "But the one thing that I didn't expect was when an older player came to talk to me after the first concert and said, 'Consider this your future home.'

"Something was going on, because I felt the same. I sensed with an absolute certainty that this orchestra, in whatever way, was going to be a very important part of my life. Always."

Salonen returned yearly after that. Meanwhile, relations between Previn and the management cooled, and Fleischmann clearly began to feel that he had been right about Salonen. At one point, he offered to appoint him principal guest conductor and invited him to take the Philharmonic on a European tour. Not consulted in either decision, Previn balked.

"Andre was very civil," Salonen said of the meeting they had when Salonen came to town for a news conference. "But under the circumstances, he told me he couldn't accept the appointment."

It was Salonen who had inadvertently blurted out news of the tour to Previn. "So that was that," Salonen said. "I completely understood and went back to Finland straightaway." A few months later, a letter came from the Philharmonic inviting Salonen to be the orchestra's next music director. Previn had resigned.

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